Pretend Primary: Income Inequality
The top one percent of all American earners now rake in fully 21 percent of all U.S. income, according to IRS data--the highest such concentration of wealth in the nation's recorded history. And the bottom half of all earners are taking in just under 13 percent of the nation's income--also a record low.
But with the presidential candidates focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, they don't have a whole lot of opportunity to see or hear how the income gap is making life tougher in a place like the Washington region, where three of the nation's richest counties--Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery--struggle to maintain basic services in communities where folks with modest incomes simply can no longer afford to live.
If we had primary elections that mattered in this part of the country, income inequality would be near the top of the list of issues that voters would like to hear the candidates tackle. But of course our votes don't count because Maryland, Virginia and the District hold their primaries after nearly all the convention delegates have been chosen, which is why we're staging the Pretend Primary here on the big blog on Dec. 13. Every week until then, I'll introduce one of the issues that might dominate the discussion were the candidates ever to engage in this part of the country. Last week: illegal immigration. This week: income inequality. Next week: You tell me, by commenting below.
The growing and frightening gap in incomes has been a big issue on the presidential campaign trail for Democrat John Edwards, who continues to ring the populist bell as he did with his 2004 "Two Americas" theme. In Virginia, Sen. Jim Webb effectively used the income inequality issue to attract conservative Democrats and independents to his victorious campaign against then-Sen. George Allen. (Virginia's Democratic master strategist, Mudcat Saunders, who was one of the main brains behind Mark Warner's race for governor, also played an important role in bringing the inequality issue to the fore in the Webb campaign, and is playing a similar advisory role in Edwards' effort.)
President Bush says the income gap has been around for a long time and the only real solution is to improve our schools.
On the right, there are serious voices that say income inequality is good, that wealth belongs to those who create it, and that the only thing preventing poorer Americans from getting the health care and other services they need is a surplus of government regulation.
Most Republican candidates don't go quite that far--they don't want to sound callous, after all--but income inequality is not a big winner of an issue for them, so you don't find them saying much about it. Rudy Giuliani has gone perhaps the farthest among the GOP hopefuls toward accepting the Steve Forbesian 'let them eat cake' approach, embracing Forbes' flat tax notion as a cure for our economic divide. Of course, the flat tax would ease the tax burden on the very rich while shifting more of the bill to moderate income families. Mitt Romney has responded to questions about the relatively extreme wealth of those who run for president by volunteering that he would likely donate his salary to charity were he to win the White House. John McCain has talked about how income inequality is causing social unrest and economic problems in Latin America, but he hasn't quite extended that riff to this country.
There's empirical evidence that lower income families fare better economically under Democratic presidents (and conversely, the affluent do better under Republicans), but as they say on Wall Street, past performance doesn't guarantee future results.
Still, some Democrats like to rely on that reputation to make the case that they will deliver for those who are not finding this the most wonderful time of their lives. Hillary Clinton is talking a good deal about rebuilding the middle class and addressing some inequalities, and our man Achenbach took a stab at truth-squadding her rhetoric.
Barack Obama and Clinton both refer to the Gilded Age as the last time this country faced such a yawning space between rich and poor, and while Obama says most Americans don't resent the rich because we want to get there too, he adds that "they worry that the system may be rigged."
What, if anything, would you want to hear the candidates say about income inequality, and what else aren't they talking about that is of particular concern in this region?
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